Escape A Sailing Dream Turned Nightmare
“Escape can be a conscious choice or an unexpected path that provides the way to one’s true destiny.”
In 1998 a newly retired couple in Miami sold everything to buy their dreamboat and sail around the world. A violent storm gave the wife recurring night terrors and she abandoned the boat in the Bahamas.
The wife flew home to stay with her spinster sister who never approved of the sailing adventure or the husband. The race was on to abolish little sister’s marriage before the husband could return.
The husband hired a captain and cook to help sail the boat back to Florida. During the voyage the motley crew fought a running battle with smugglers, faced a fire on the boat, and were battered by a storm of biblical proportions.
Escape is a novel about an actual delivery by Captain Jeff Lyon. The people and places in this nautical odyssey are real. The events are related with the polished embellishments expected from a practiced raconteur.
BAM! The starboard portlight shattered. Glass shards from the oval window sprayed across Escape’s aft cabin. The wooden bowsprit of a two-masted sailboat had punched out the portlight like a battering ram and then raked across Escape’s lower back side. The floundering vessel’s extended nose got tangled in the line attached to Escape’s dinghy and yanked out the metal cleat to which it was tied. The big ketch disappeared into the blustery night with the inflatable boat flailing wildly from its bow.
Agatha shot bolt upright from a dead sleep shrieking, “We’re dragging anchor!”
Ewan bound from the roomy berth in the middle of the cabin. The four cats living aboard Escape scampered in all directions. The forty-eight-foot custom cutter was heeling and reeling like a toy in a choppy pond. It was all Ewan could do to grope his way up the swaying steps toward the center cockpit to see why the peaceful night had suddenly turned so brutal.
Outside, Ewan was knocked down by violent gusts of stinging rain. At five feet, five inches, and 130 pounds, he was no match for the angry storm from nowhere. The once tranquil anchorage, just west of the sandy spit that formed Dinner Key Marina’s western breakwater, was now a frothing maelstrom of heaving boats. The incessant deluge muffled the anguished screams from panicked crews. The crunch of fiberglass shattering as hulls bashed together made Ewan nauseous. Entangled rigging screeched as the cables that supported masts tore away from helpless vessels.
A savage blast ripped the bimini top from its frame above Ewan’s head. The heavy canvas was consumed by the inky sky. Ewan’s adrenal glands kicked into hyperdrive. He yelled to Agatha, “We have to reset the anchor!” but his words were snatched away by the storm.
Fumbling his way below, Ewan found Agatha cowering in a corner of the rear cabin. Kneeling by her side he yelled, “We have to reset the anchor!”
Shaking her head she bawled, “I can’t!”
“You have to.”
“I can’t do it alone!”
“It’s not safe!”
Ewan crushed himself tightly against his trembling wife of forty years and shouted into one ear, “This boat holds everything we own!”
Ewan felt suspended in the terrifying moments that passed before Agatha finally nodded and began to struggle to her feet. Helping each other fight their way to the cockpit, they emerged into the chaotic night that seemed to be getting worse.
Ewan coaxed the small diesel to life, while Agatha clutched a handrail and stared unbelieving into the swirling darkness. A small sloop appeared through the sheets of driving rain, slammed broadside into Escape and then vanished. Ewan motioned for Agatha to take the wheel and he would go forward to raise the anchor. She shook her head and began inching toward the bow before he could stop her.
Ewan managed to switch on the deck lights, which provided a scant glimmer of hope. Agatha crawled slowly toward the front of the boat. Her stout frame and proud bearing appeared fragile and subdued. Her knuckles turned white from gripping the lifeline to starboard and clutching the cabin handrail to her left. The cabin created a slight wind break from the blustery onslaught. With determination and excruciating deliberateness she made her way to the bucking bow.
Ewan shoved the throttle on the four-cylinder Lehman ahead full. It seemed like forever before the little diesel engine churned enough force through the propeller to slowly begin pushing the boat into the wind. The auxiliary engine’s eighty horsepower was trifling against the squall’s magnitude.
Agatha was lying flat on her stomach and pushing down on a switch with all her might to make the windlass raise the dragging anchor. Overcome with despair, she began to sob uncontrollably. Nothing seemed to happen. Ever so slowly, the bow began to lumber into the wind as the electric motor on the windlass reeled in anchor chain one link at a time. If they could just get the anchor up, manage to motor into the wind and reset it, the boat might not be wrecked in the surrounding shallow water, where no doubt countless other boats had already piled up. Agatha could not shake off the hopelessness of the situation and contemplated letting the wind and waves wash her into the turbulent bay.
Ewan stared at the compass mounted on the waist-high binnacle in front of him. The needle quivered as the battered sailboat sluggishly turned toward the northeast. The hurricane force winds were pushing them away from the marina into Biscayne Bay. Dozens of wrecks dotted the shallow waters behind them. Escape was being swept out of the Brennan Channel into a boat graveyard.
A red channel marker materialized just to Ewan’s right. The heavy metal sign turned the little ship head to the wind as it scraped down the starboard side. Finally a break. With the pointy end of the boat into the teeth of the gale, Escape began to move forward.
The jolt from the steel post nearly shook Agatha off the bow. She had no idea the shock was coming. Realizing the impact helped align the boat, she crept back to the windlass switch from the lifelines that had kept her from sliding into the water. The windlass picked up speed gathering the anchor chain.
With visibility near zero, there would be no landmarks to guide him and Ewan would have to rely on dead reckoning to pilot the sailboat back into the anchorage. The term’s relevance brought a brief bit of humor to the situation. It was quickly dashed by what happened next.
Still willing herself to maintain a hold on the bow, Agatha saw them coming. The couple on the sailboat that normally anchored close to them were now flailing in the bay. Holding onto each other, Bob’s and Betty’s free arms were thrashing the white water that surrounded them. They tried to grab Escape’s anchor line but were too exhausted to hang on. Ewan felt them bash against the bow. They clawed futilely at the boat’s fiberglass side as they dragged past. Ewan saw them briefly when they cleared the stern, before the saltwater sucked them down. “My God,” he thought, “I’ve never seen such horror in human eyes.”
The boat shuddered when the anchor leapt from the water and clanged into the steel bow roller. Its sudden emergence meant they had a real chance. Creeping back into the anchorage, the wind began to ease and the sky brightened slightly. Agatha peered intently ahead in hope of seeing the breakwater before they ran aground. Ewan watched as the depth sounder added precious feet.
As suddenly as it had begun, the wind started to lay down. The false dawn provided just enough light for Agatha to see the fast approaching rocks and trees on top of the breakwater. She jumped to her feet and turned to warn Ewan. The lowest point of the boat’s keel plowed into the sandy bottom and Escape leaned over hard on her left side. Agatha was thrown backward and fell with a violent thud. Her head struck the windlass, knocking her unconscious.
With Escape stuck hard aground, Ewan pulled and tugged his way forward on the slanted deck to help Agatha. Ewan’s short, wiry build belied his impressive strength. He sat beside Agatha’s limp body and cradled her head in his arms.
“Talk to me Aggie! Please, please talk to me.”
Her burly body remained limp. Ewan pushed open her eyelids, only to find the eyes rolled back and quivering in their sockets. He could feel the goose egg on the back of her head growing and blood oozed down the deck and trickled into the bay.
Daylight began to melt away the blackness of the squall now rumbling into the distance. Wrecked boats strewn about the shallow banks of West Islands, Dinner Key and both sides of the Dinner Key Channel began to materialize from the gloomy waters. The microbursts from the unexpected tempest had scattered boats in every direction. A calmness was creeping over what looked like the aftermath of a massive explosion.
“My head hurts.” Agatha had come to, while Ewan helplessly surveyed the carnage surrounding them.
“Aggie! Aggie, are you OK?”
“You fell and banged your head on the windlass.”
“I feel sick.”
“Can you get up?”
The couple struggled to make their way back inside the boat’s cabin. Escape was resting on port side with her six-foot keel firmly stuck in the sandy bottom. They were both exhausted by the time they managed to slump over the tilted settee in the main saloon. Water covered the floorboards.
“We’re sinking,” Agatha gasped.
“Can’t. We’re hard aground.”
“I’m dizzy. Gonna throw up.”
“Try to relax. I’ll call for help.”
Ewan switched on the VHF radio. Channel 16 was a buzzing swarm of static and panic. Everyone on a boat that hadn’t had its antenna blown away by the storm was trying to call for help. Ewan slowly worked his way through all the channels the radio had to offer. When he reached 72 there was a brief moment of silence.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday,” Ewan droned. “This is the sailing vessel Escape hard aground on the Dinner Key breakwater. We need medical assistance. Over.”
The briefest of silence was shattered by another boater’s frantic plea, “This is Wind Shadow. I have crew with a broken…” the message was overridden by, “…our captain was lost overboard…” The cut and garbled pleas cancelled each other in a continuous flow of anguish.
The incessant thumping of two Coast Guard helicopters grew louder inside Escape’s cabin. They were soon joined by four more helos from the local news stations. Suddenly the storm’s survivors were assured that the world knew of their plight. Help was coming.
The battered boaters did not know, but a massive flotilla of Coast Guard and private boats was descending on Dinner Key from all directions. Some were coming to gawk, but most were eager to help in any way they could. The choppers in the air would attempt to orchestrate the swarm and prioritize the removal of the sick and injured.
Ewan looked closer at his wife as light began to fill Escape’s main cabin. He had never seen her so wan and limp. Her eyes lacked spark and saliva intermittently seeped from the corner of her mouth and collected on her already soaked sweatshirt. He retrieved the first-aid kit and began cleaning the gash on the back of Agatha’s head.
“I’m putting antibiotic cream on your cut.”
Ewan found Agatha’s protests reassuring. Maybe she was coming out of shock.
“Quit pulling my hair.”
The bickering was helping Agatha stay awake and restoring some of her zapped vitality. Ewan attempted to put her mind at ease.
“Help will be here soon.”
“I want off this boat.”
“I know. We need a doctor to look at this bump.”
Agatha peered deep into Ewan’s sympathetic eyes and all he could see was fear in hers. The silence between them was unsettling. Finally, Agatha spoke, “Is Escape a total wreck?”
“I don’t think so.”
“So am I.”
There was a shout from outside Escape. “Anyone in there?” It was a small center console boat operated by a local Coast Guard Auxiliary member named Captain Tony.
“Yes! My wife needs medical help immediately.”
“Can she come to me?”
Ewan looked at Agatha and she nodded yes. “We’re coming. Please, God, don’t leave. We’re coming.”
Chapter 1 Narrated by Jeff Lyon
Comments from the Author
I am working through the second round of rewriting and editing Escape. This action packed tale has been a challenge to create in terms that will sound familiar to the seasoned sailor, as well as, those less versed in nautical parlance. My fifth novel will be an exciting read for anyone interested in coming along for a hair-raising adventure through Bahamian and South Florida waters.